Refuting Ayn Rand’s “Immortal Robot” Argument – G. Stolyarov II
Here I refute an argument that has been leveled against proponents of indefinite human longevity from a surprising direction – those sympathetic to the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. Some advocates of Ayn Rand’s philosophy believe that indefinite life would turn human beings into “immortal, indestructible robots” that, according to Ayn Rand, would have no genuine values. Both of these claims are false. Indefinite life would not turn humans into indestructible robots, nor would an indestructible robot with human abilities lack values or motivation for doing great things. In Ayn Rand’s own words, “Achieving life is not the equivalent of avoiding death.” (John Galt’s speech in For the New Intellectual, p. 135)
Rand’s “immortal robot” argument is found in “The Objectivist Ethics” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 15): “To make this point fully clear, try to imagine an immortal, indestructible robot, an entity which moves and acts, but which cannot be affected by anything, which cannot be changed in any respect, which cannot be damaged, injured or destroyed. Such an entity would not be able to have any values; it would have nothing to gain or to lose; it could not regard anything as for or against it, as serving or threatening its welfare, as fulfilling or frustrating its interests. It could have no interests and no goals.”
The “immortal robot” argument needs to be challenged because it originates from Ayn Rand, who otherwise espouses numerous rational ideas. I myself agree with most of the fundamental principles that Ayn Rand advocates. However, in some of her particular reasoning – at least, if applied to the wrong context – she can be off-target in such a way as to retard further progress. The often-leveled argument, derived by contemporary non-transhumanist Objectivists from the above-quoted passage, is that achieving indefinite longevity would turn human beings into Ayn Rand’s description of the “immortal, indestructible robot”.
In responding to Rand’s argument, several points can be made in relation to prolonging human life indefinitely and lifting the death sentence that hangs over all of us. First, at no point in time will human beings become the “immortal, indestructible robots” that Ayn Rand describes. The simple reason for this is that our existence is physical and contingent on certain physical prerequisites being fulfilled. The moment one of these physical prerequisites is lacking, our existence ceases. This will always be the case, even if we no longer have a necessary upper limit on our lifespans. For instance, biomedical advances that would greatly expand human lifespans – allowing periodic reversions to a more youthful biological state and therefore the possibility of an indefinite existence – would not turn humans into indestructible robots. There would still be the need to actively turn back biological processes of decay, and the active choice to pursue such treatments or not. People who live longer by successfully combating senescence could still get run over by a car or experience a plane crash. They would retain potential vulnerability to certain perils – such as death from accidents – although, as I have explained in “Life Extension and Risk Aversion”, they may be more diligent in seeking to greatly reduce the probability of such outcomes. If it is ever the case that death by senescence and the myriad diseases which kill many human beings today can be averted, then human beings will try to avert the other possibilities of death – for instance, by developing safer modes of transportation or engaging in fewer wars.
It is possible to significantly reduce the likelihood that one can be destroyed, without ever eliminating the theoretical potential of such destruction. Furthermore, because human beings have free will, they always have at least the hypothetical option of choosing to undermine the physical prerequisites of their own lives. In my view, no sane, rational being would actually choose to pursue that option, but the option is there nonetheless. For anybody who seeks to commit suicide by immediate or gradual means, or by refusing to take advantage of life-prolonging techniques once they become available, there is virtually nothing in the world that could prevent this, apart from rational persuasion (which may or may not be successful).
Even with indefinite longevity, human beings will always be vulnerable to some actual or hypothetical perils or poor choices. Moreover, when we manage to avoid one kind of peril, other kinds of perils may become more pressing as they come into the frame of awareness of longer-lived beings. If we do manage to live for hundreds of thousands of years, we will be far more subject to long-term geological changes and fluctuations of the Earth’s climate, such as the cycle of ice ages, whereas today humans do not live long enough to experience these massive shifts. Most of us today do not worry about the consequences of huge glaciers advancing over the continents, but humans who live for millennia will see this as a pressing problem for their own lifetimes. Likewise, the longer we live, the greater the likelihood that we will experience a global cataclysm, such as a supervolcano or an asteroid hitting the Earth. Human ingenuity and resources would need to be devoted toward confronting and even preventing these perils – a highly desirable outcome in general, since the perils exist irrespective of our individual lifespans, but most humans currently lack the long-term vision or orientation to combat them.
Moreover, the need to reject the “immortal robot” argument when discussing indefinite life extension does not stem solely from a desire to achieve philosophical correctness. Rather, we should recognize the potential for actually achieving meaningful, unprecedented longevity increases within our own lifetimes. For instance, the SENS Research Foundation is a nonprofit biogerontological research organization whose founder, Dr. Aubrey de Grey, has outlined an engineering-based approach to reversing the seven principal types of damage that accumulate in the human body with age. (SENS stands for “Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence”.) Dr. de Grey has stated that, with proper funding, there is approximately a 50 percent probability of these rejuvenation treatments being developed 20-25 years from now. (The 20-year figure is presented in this transcript from a recent NPR interview of Aubrey de Grey – quoted in “Discussing Science and Aging: Aubrey de Grey and Cynthia Kenyon at NPR” by Reason at FightAging.org.) The SENS Research Foundation is not the only entity pursuing radical life extension. Major commercial efforts toward research into reversing biological aging – such as Calico, created and funded by Google (now Alphabet, Inc.) – have been launched already. Thus, it is premature to conclude that death is a certainty for those who are alive today. Medical advances on the horizon could indeed turn many humans into beings who are still potentially vulnerable to death, but no longer subject to any upper limit on their lifespans.
It is therefore ill-advised to pin any ethical justifications for the ultimate value of human life to the current contingent situation, where it just so happens that human lifespans are finite because we have not achieved the level of technological advancement to overcome senescence yet. If such advances are achieved, common interpretations of the “immortal robot” argument and its derivative claims would suggest that life for human beings would transform from an ultimate value to some lesser value or to no value at all. This implication reveals a flaw in arguments that rely on the finitude of life and the inevitability of death. How is it that, by making life longer, healthier, and of higher quality (with less suffering due to the diseases of old age), humans would, in so doing, deprive life of its status as an ultimate value? If life is improved, it does not thereby lose a moral status that it previously possessed.
Yet another important recognition is that some animals have already attained negligible senescence. Their lifespans are de facto finite, but without a necessary upper limit. Suppose that evolution had taken a different course and rational beings had descended from tortoises rather than from primates. Then these rational beings would have negligible senescence without the need for medical intervention to achieve it. Would their lives thereby lack a type of value which the proponents of the “immortal robot” argument attribute to human lives today? Again, a conclusion of this sort illustrates a flaw in the underlying argument.
But suppose that a true immortal, indestructible robot could exist and be identical to human beings in every other respect. It would possess human biological processes and ways of thinking but be made of extremely strong materials that did not deteriorate or that automatically renewed themselves so as to rapidly, automatically repair any injury. Ayn Rand’s argument would still be mistaken. Even if death were not a possibility for such a being, it could still pursue and enjoy art, music, inventions, games – any activity that is appealing from the perspective of the senses, the intellect, or the general civilizing project of transforming chaos into order and transforming simpler orders into more complex ones.
The fear of death is not the sole motivator for human actions by far. Indeed, most great human accomplishments are a result of positive, not negative motivations. Rand acknowledged this when she wrote that “Achieving life is not the equivalent of avoiding death.” At least in the short term, you do not need to do much to avoid death. You could just sit there, stay out of trouble, eat, drink, keep warm, sleep – and you survive to the next day. But that is not a full life, according to Rand. Obviously, one needs to avoid death to have a full life. Survival is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Many thinkers sympathetic to the Objectivist school, such as Edward Younkins, Tara Smith, Douglas Den Uyl, Douglas Rasmussen, Tibor Machan, George Reisman, and Lester Hunt, have extended this insight to conclude that survival is not enough; one should also pursue flourishing. (Younkins provides an excellent overview of this perspective in “Flourishing and Happiness in a Nutshell”.)
I concur fully with the goal of flourishing and recognize the existence of numerous positive motivations besides mere survival. For example, the desire to see oneself create something, to witness a product of one’s mind become embodied in the physical reality, is a powerful motivation indeed. One can furthermore seek to take esthetic pleasure from a particular object or activity. This does not require even a thought of death. Moreover, to appreciate certain kinds of patterns in existence, which are present in art, in technology, and even in games, does not require any thought of death. Many people play games, even if those games do not contribute anything to their survival. This does not mean, however, that doing so is irrational; rather, it is another creative way to channel the activities of the human mind. Via games, the human mind essentially creates its own field of endeavor, a rule system within which it operates. By operating within that rule system, the mind exercises its full potential, whereas just by sitting there and only doing what is absolutely necessary to survive, the mind would have missed some essential part of its functioning.
Creating art and music, undertaking scientific discoveries, envisioning new worlds – actual and fictional – does not rely on having to die in the future. None of these activities even rely on the threat of death. The immortal, indestructible robot, of course, might not engage in precisely thesame activities as we do today. It would probably not need to worry about earning its next meal by working for somebody else, but it could still paint a painting, just because it would like to see its mental processes – in this scenario, processes greatly resembling our own – have some kind of external consequence and embodiment in the external reality. Such external embodiment is a vital component of flourishing.
Fear of death is not the sole motivator for human action, nor the sole prerequisite for value, as Ayn Rand acknowledged. There is more to life than that. Life is not merely about survival and should be about the pursuit of individual flourishing as well. Survival is a necessary prerequisite, but, once it is achieved, an individual is free to pursue higher-order values, such as self-actualization. The individual would only be further empowered in the quest for flourishing and self-actualization in a hypothetical environment where no threats to survival existed.
While we will never be true immortal robots, such immortal robots could nonetheless flourish and truly achieve life. As a result, the “immortal robot” argument fails on multiple counts and is not a valid challenge to indefinite life extension.
This essay may be freely reproduced using the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike International 4.0 License, which requires that credit be given to the author, G. Stolyarov II. Find out about Mr. Stolyarov here.